Pete Riccitelli was in my face, saying he was right and I was wrong, wrong, wrong. The year was 1991 and the Baseball Hall of Fame had announced Pete Rose was banned from any vote that would lead to his induction.
“You guys think you’re God,” said Riccitelli, speaking of sports writers. “You’re a bunch of jerks. How can you keep the greatest hitter in baseball out of the Hall of Fame?”
Now that Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens and Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were turned away from Cooperstown by the Baseball Writers Association who do the voting, I wish Riccitelli were alive. Just to ask him again about what’s right and wrong.
And to tell him that sometimes, someone has to be judge and jury outside the courts of law. Bonds, Clemens and friends should not be in the Baseball Hall of Fame. Neither should Pete Rose. Neither should Shoeless Joe Jackson. Not now, not ever. They stole our trust.
Riccitelli was the street kid who fought and clawed his way to the top of the boxing scene in the late 1960s. Thousands crowded into the Portland Expo twice a month to cheer or jeer the flamboyant man who fought as a light-heavyweight or heavyweight. He was more puncher than boxer and for 10 years played the role of local champion so well.
He was a baseball fan and saw himself in Pete Rose. So baseball’s greatest hitter had gambled when he was a manager, betting on games. Maybe his money was riding on games he managed. So what, said Riccitelli. That shouldn’t change what Rose did as a player or the hitting records he set. Rose played baseball with a pugnacious passion that was rarely matched by other ballplayers.
Riccitelli fought with that passion. It’s what endeared him to his many fans. To Riccitelli, right and wrong rested in his right and left fists. His right and wrong came from living in too many foster homes. He didn’t know his father and his mother left him.
Right and wrong was winning and losing. It didn’t matter to Riccitelli how he won, just that he did. Right was living and surviving and Riccitelli did that. Wrong was weakness and dying.
Riccitelli and I became friends sometime around 1990. I was the Monday cook in a soup kitchen in Augusta and he was the lanky guy with the mop of curly hair who appeared one day to serve our diners. He was nearly broke, pawning what possessions he had left. The city was paying him to do a job normally done by volunteers.
We talked after people were fed. I bought him lunches away from the soup kitchen. He told me about amphetamines, the stimulant that makes someone feel much more alert. You know them as “greenies” which were once found in many pro locker rooms. Use too many over time and they can affect your mind.
Riccitelli had been admitted to what was then called the Augusta Mental Health Institute. “Everyone always said I was crazy, so why not?” He said it was to hide out from the leg-breakers who were after him for the money he owed Boston wiseguys. He came to the soup kitchen months later after he was released and living in an apartment with another former patient.
Riccitelli died in 1997, several years after suffering a stroke. He was only 54. He put a gun to his head and took a life lived by its own definition of right and wrong.
That’s the problem: We can’t agree on what’s right and what’s wrong anymore. It’s OK to take the performance-enhancing drug if it prolongs a career or helps your team win. It’s OK because too many people, from club owners to team fans, will turn a blind eye as long as the victories keep coming.
It’s OK to cheat on the final exam if its gets you the college degree that gets you the better job. It’s OK to cheat on your tax return; the government wastes millions. It’s OK to chug at the underage team keg party in the name of team bonding. Hey, you can get the cheats to your favorite video game and many do.
I loved watching Sammy Sosa run the bases after a home run. I loved watching Roger Clemens pitch and it didn’t matter what uniform he wore. Pete Rose was a boyhood hero. That they cheated the game, themselves and us does make a difference.
I could make excuses for them, but I’m done being a clubhouse lawyer. What they did was wrong. Cherish their records if you must, but don’t go to Cooperstown to remember them.
Staff Writer Steve Solloway can be contacted at 791-6412 or at: